THE HONEYMOONERS

U.S. Situation/Sketch Comedy

The Honeymooners is one of network television's most beloved and syndicated series. Although The Honeymooners ran for only one season as a half-hour situation comedy (during the 1955-56 season on CBS), Jackie Gleason presented the sketch numerous times during his various variety series. In fact, no premise has been seen in so many different guises in the history of television--aired live, film and tape; in black and white and color; as sketch comedy, situation comedy, and musical. It succeeding on network, syndicated, and cable television. Whatever the form, audiences have continued to embrace the loudmouthed bus driver Ralph Kramden, Gleason's most resonant creation, as an American Everyman, a dreamer whose visions of upward mobility are constantly thwarted.

The Honeymooners stands in stark contrast to the prosperous suburban sitcoms of the 1950s. The battling Brooklynites, Kramden and his sarcastic wife Alice (Audrey Meadows the most well known of the several impersonations), are trapped on the treadmill of lower middle class existence. Their spartan apartment is one of the most minimal and recognizable in television design. A functional table, a curtainless window, and an antiquated ice box signal their impoverishment. Most of the comedy revolves around Ralph's schemes to get-rich quick (e.g. his infomercial for the Handy Housewife Helper in "Better Living Through TV"). The tempestuous Ralph is assisted by his friend and upstairs neighbor Ed Norton (agilely and always played by Art Carney), a dimwitted sewer worker. The Honeymooners quartet is rounded out by Trixie Norton (most notably Joyce Randolph), Ed's loyal wife and Alice's best friend. Unlike most couples in situation comedy, both the Kramdens and the Nortons were childless and rarely talked about their situation in a baby-booming America.

Gleason introduced The Honeymooners on 5 October 1951 during his first variety series, Cavalcade of Stars, broadcast live on the DuMont network. Kramden directly reflects the frustrations and yearning of Gleason's upbringing; his address at 358 Chauncey Street, was the star's boyhood address. The Honeymooners began as a six-minute sketch of marital combat. The battered wife was realistically played by veteran character actress Pert Kelton. A cameo was provided by Art Carney as a policeman. Viewers immediately identified with Ralph and Alice's arguments and further sketches were written by Harry Crane and Joe Bigelow. Early on, they added the Nortons; Trixie was first played by Broadway actress Elaine Stritch. These early drafts were a starkly realistic insight into the compromises of marriage, a kind of kitchen sink comedy of insult and recrimination.

In September, Gleason and his staff were lured to CBS by William Paley to star in a big time variety series, again on Saturday night. Audrey Meadows, who performed with Bob and Ray, replaced Kelton, suffering from both heart problems and political blacklisting. The Honeymooner sketches were mostly less than ten minutes during the first CBS season. During the next two years, the routines grew increasingly longer, many over thirty minutes. Most were marked with the familiar catchphrases--Ralph's blustery threats ("One of these days Pow! Right to the Kisser!") and the assuring reconciliations with Alice at the end ("Baby, you're the greatest").

For the 1955-56 season, Gleason was given one of the largest contracts in show business history to produce The Honeymooners as a standard situation comedy. Gleason formed his production company and experimented with the Electronicam technology, which enabled him to film a live show with several cameras, a precursor of three-camera videotape recording. Gleason filmed two shows a week at the Adelphi Theatre in New York, performing to over 1,000 spectators. Gleason's stable of writers felt hemmed in by the regular format, and Gleason noticed a lack of fresh ideas. When the ratings of The Honeymooners sitcom plummeted out of the top ten shows (the previous season The Jackie Gleason Show ranked number two), Gleason decided to return to the variety format. Gleason later sold these "classic" thirty-nine films of The Honeymooners to CBS for a million and a half dollars, and they provided a bonanza for the network in syndication.

The Honeymooners remained a pivotal sketch during Gleason's variety show the following season. The writers creating a few new wrinkles, including a musical trip to Europe that covered ten one-hour installments. When Carney left the show in 1957, Gleason dropped the sketch entirely.

He resurrected his big-time variety show in 1962 and moved the production permanently to Miami Beach in 1964. He sporadically revived The Honeymooners when Carney was available. Since Meadows and Randolph did not want to relocate, Sue Ann Langdon (Alice) and Patricia Wilson (Trixie) took over as the wives. Meadows returned for a one-time special reenactment of "The Adoption," a 1955 sketch in which Ralph and Alice discuss their rarely heard feelings about parenthood. During the 1966-67 season, Gleason decided to remake the "Trip to Europe" musicals into color spectaculars with forty new numbers. Sheila MacRae and Jean Kean were recruited for the roles of Alice and Trixie.

Gleason's variety show ended in 1970, but he was reunited with Carney and Meadows for four one-hour Honeymooners specials during the late 1970s. The specials, broadcast on ABC, revolved around such family celebrations as wedding anniversaries, Valentine's Day, and Christmas. With Jean Kean as Trixie, The Honeymooners remained two childless couples, the most basic of family units on television.

The filmed episodes of The Honeymooners were one of the great financial successes in syndication. A local station in New York played them every night for over two decades. The thirty-nine programs with their almost ritualistic themes and incantatory dialogue inspired cultic worship, most notably the formation of the club RALPH (Royal Association for the Longevity and Preservation of the Honeymooners). For years, the live sketches were considered lost. When The Museum of Broadcasting discovered four complete variety programs featuring the Kramdens and the Nortons, Gleason revealed that he had more than eighty live versions in his Miami vault. He sold the rights of the "lost episodes" to Viacom and the live Honeymooners found an afterlife on cable television and the home video market.

The Honeymooners remain one of the touchstones of American television, enjoyable on many levels. Critics have compared the richness of Gleason's Ralph Kramden to such literary counterparts as Don Quixote, a character worthy of Dickens, and Willy Loman. Although The Honeymooners did not tackle any social issues throughout its many incarnations, the comedy evokes something very essential to the national experience. The Kramdens and Nortons embody the yearnings and frustrations of postwar, urban America--the perpetual underdogs in search of a jackpot. When such producers as Norman Lear in All In The Family or Roseanne in her own series want to critique the flipside of the American Dream, The Honeymooners has been there as a source of inspiration.

-Ron Simon

 

CAST (The Series)

Ralph Kramden .................................Jackie Gleason Ed Norton ................................................Art Carney Alice Kramden ...............................Audrey Meadows Trixie Norton ....................................Joyce Randolph

PRODUCERS Jack Philbin, Jack Hurdle

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 39 Episodes

CBS

October 1955-February 1956          Saturday 8:30-9:00 February 1956-September 1956      Saturday 8:00-8:30

FURTHER READING

Bacon, James. The Jackie Gleason Story. New York: St. Martin's, 1985.

Bishop, Jim. The Golden Ham: A Candid Biography of Jackie Gleason. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956.

Cresenti, Peter, and Bob Columbe. The Official Honeymooners Treasury. New York: Perigee, 1985.

Henry, William. The Great One: The Life and Legend of Jackie Gleason. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Meadows, Audrey. Love, Alice My Life as a Honeymooner. New York: Crown, 1994.

McCrohan, Donna. The Honeymooners' Companion. New York: Workman, 1978.

McCrohan, Donna, and Peter Cresenti. The Honeymooners Lost Episodes. New York: Workman, 1986.

Jackie Gleason: "The Great One." New York: The Museum of Broadcasting (now The Museum of Television and Radio), 1988.

Waldron, Vince. Classic Sitcoms. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

Weatherby, W. J. Jackie Gleason: An Intimate Portrait of The Great One. New York: Pharos, 1992.

 

See also Carney, Art; Gleason, Jackie; Flintstones